"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 30 January 2015

Panpsychism: cosmic consciousness and the entropic elephant.

The hard problem of consciousness is, well…hard. It is very difficult to reconcile self-awareness, and experience of qualia with the squishy materialistic brain stuff that appears to produce it.
From a naturalist perspective the usual solution is emergence which argues that from sufficiently complex and organised systems consciousness can arise irreducibly from simpler non conscious processes. Or as Max Tegmark says
“Consciousness is how information feels when being processed”
It’s a concept that I am sympathetic to, which is why I can entertain the idea that self-awareness may one day emerge in an artificial intelligence, or even out of a well enough connected internet. Even so, this is not obviously true, and human intuition has long assumed a dualist approach to consciousness that maintains a distinct separation between brain stuff and mind stuff.
The extreme of dualism is the naïve religious concept of the soul, that we are essentially an immortal spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body; our mind stuff is us with the brain a mere vessel. That this is not the case can easily be demonstrated by the fact that we can alter, enhance or impair our minds with psychoactive drugs or through illness and injury. More sophisticated theologies seem to argue for a kind of pantheism whereby our consciousness is a phenomenon of an all-encompassing deity, a sea of divine consciousness experienced as God. This idea is a subset of the concept known as panpsychism .
panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived. A panpsychist sees themselves as a mind in a world of minds.
Panpsychism has a prestigious provenance dating back at least as far as Plato and found favour with Carl Jung, Spinoza, Arthur Shopenhauer and Bertrand Russell to name only a few. Needless to say the theory is not obviously wrong and it’s not my intention here to argue against it, but rather to explore the implications should it be true.
Unless we are to abandon methodological naturalism altogether the first question we should ask is what this “primordial feature” is supposed to be made of. In order to have any continuity at all with the material universe as we currently understand it consciousness would have to be some sort of field, preferably with an associated quantum particle. After all the brain must be processing something for neuroscientist to be able to measure its activity. To say it’s beyond physical comprehension is only to push the hard problem further down the causal chain; it certainly doesn’t solve it. Also whatever the constituents turn out to be would dictate whether panpsychism implies that consciousness is everywhere or merely that some unconscious fundamental particle of mentality pervades the universe. In other words does mind stuff necessarily mean there is a mind, or does it need further organisation to qualify.
Some flavours of panpsychism insist that everything has at least some experience or perception of qualia, even inanimate matter, whereas weaker versions assign this only to living systems. Mystical interpretations look for an overarching cosmic consciousness, a self-aware universe that some will interpret as God. If the fundamental unit of consciousness turns out to be something completely beyond our understanding all bets are off. But, assuming for now that that our quantum of consciousness can be fitted into the existing paradigm I would suggest that it must be something reducible to information.
Scientist and Author Peter Russell Likes to draw parallels between light and enlightenment to pitch light as the vector for consciousness. He uses an argument from special relativity to suggest that photons lie outside of space and time and it is only our perception that creates the illusion of existence in the four spacetime dimensions. From the link above…
“What you observe as the speed of light can be thought of as the ratio of manifestation of time and space. For every 186,000 miles of space, there appears 1 second of time. It is this ratio that is fixed. This is why the so-called 'speed' of light […] is always the same.”
Unfortunately, Russell takes a Noetic view of consciousness and believes that meditation and inner reflection can reveal deep truths about the universe and I also think his argument from relativity is flawed (which I won’t elaborate on here) however, pursuing our line of thought, I think the photon as a candidate for a quantum of consciousness is a reasonable one but for different reasons.
In standard particle theory photons are Bosons quantum particles that mediate the interactions between other subatomic particles. Specifically photons mediate the electromagnetic force and are emitted and absorbed as electrons change energy levels around nuclei. In living systems this could be considered a fundamental quantum of information since the “experience” of even the most primitive life forms is based on electrochemical reactions facilitated by photons. So could they count as the quanta of consciousness? Well maybe. But for sense to be made of these packets of information some level of processing needs to occur. Even amoebas have relatively complex chemical pathways that translate external stimuli into actions and as far as we can tell only complex multicellular neural interconnected brains can learn, predict and analyse.
But I think there is an entropic elephant in the room. That consciousness only obviously manifests in complex living systems should tell us something. What is unique about life that it is able to make such use of the panpsychic field? Well, one defining feature of life is that it is capable of self-sustaining a state of very low entropy with respect to its surroundings. Life is information rich and maintains this by acting as an entropy pump consuming high quality energy and excreting poor quality energy (mainly heat). Arguably brains are using this same pump to maintain the low entropy high information state of consciousness. Unless we are prepared to allow that the photon (or whatever non-mystical unit of consciousness we posit) is of itself fully “conscious” in order for brains to support minds they must be being organised (thus reducing entropy).
From this point of view strong panpsychism that allows for minds to create reality or for the universe to be self-aware cannot be true since outside of brains the field of consciousness would be disorganised, high entropy and information poor which would not allow for any kind of “cosmic mind” or even connectedness except in a very trivial sense. In other words the universe would not be self-aware even if pervaded by such a field; Spinoza’s god would be dull company.
We’ve arrived at a kind of compromise between strong emergence and strong panpsychism. Allowing for some pervading quantum field of consciousness derived from existing science means that mind does not have to emerge ex nihilo from complexity, rather brains may be evolved for the organisation and processing of this pre-existing resource. However the argument from entropy means we have to dispense with the mystical conclusions of cosmic consciousness and parapsychology and accept that however much navel gazing we indulge in there can be no access to external truths from that source.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

On Charlie Hebdo

It’s almost impossible to know where to start to write about the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. The blood spilt in this tragedy has already been overtaken by ink and pixels with commentary from every quarter and political viewpoint. It is particularly unfortunate that the personality of “Charlie” the magazine has almost occluded the real people that have sadly lost their lives, especially since many of us who have adopted #JeSuisCharlie (myself included) have never read it. But it’s inevitable since this attack, aimed directly at the most treasured values of liberal democracy, has ramifications far beyond the limited circulation of one Parisian publication.
Charlie Hebdo post attack cover
Free speech, freedom of the press and the right of artists in all media to criticise and ridicule sacred cows are the foundations of a truly free society. It does not matter if, as some suggest, Charlie Hebdo was over provocative or even racist in its portrayal of Islamism. Even if the humour is not to everyone’s taste it is worthy of protection because as soon as we allow that some sections of our communities are never to be offended all useful debate about society will be effectively shut down. In particular we cannot protect religious sensibilities as they are often the quickest to take offence at the slightest of provocation and although I prefer to avoid slippery slope arguments the situations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia should be salutary enough to deter us from pursuing that path.
Nearly a week on from this tragedy, as the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo are about to release a defiant new issue with an unprecedented three million copy print run expected to be in demand worldwide, the mainstream media are still grappling with how to deal with the “problem” of reporting the story without re-publishing the images which sparked the attack. But I see no moral dilemma here. In any news story I would expect a newspaper or website to publish relevant illustrative photographs or images. Short of graphic depictions of bloody slaughter or gross obscenity pertinent images would normally accompany the narrative and there is no doubt in my mind that should be the case with this story. I understand that newspapers may not want to endanger themselves or their staff but if ever there was a case for holding a journalistic line, even if that meant rival publications colluding to gain safety in numbers, this was it.
In the event if the Jihadists aim was to suppress caricatures of Mohammed being circulated they were obviously unaware of the Streisand effect since Charlie Hebdo’s images of the prophet have now become ubiquitous on social media and will also appear prominently in the next edition.
I have no sympathy with the idea that re-publishing such images will further alienate and offend mainstream Muslim opinion: Muslims are not the intended target. However, the ideology that underpins attempts to suppress our freedom of expression is fair game and it is difficult to imagine how this could be effectively satirised without using the speech or images it aims to censor. Satire entails mockery and defiance of power; Islamism aims to be powerful so it is the islamist’s fault their shibboleths are in the firing line.
Very few people would want to gratuitously give offence to a section of our community, most of us aim to be polite and at least tolerant of the foibles of our neighbours. But tolerance is a two way street and in a pluralistic society it is beholden on mainstream Islam not to go looking for offense where it is not intended or to attempt to inflict its taboos on other worldviews. If, as Anjem Choudary says, “Muslims don’t believe in the concept of freedom of expression” they are at liberty to live their lives that way but must accept that liberal democracies do believe in it passionately and so will sometimes be exposed to views that conflict with their beliefs. Although, while it may be a theological truth I suspect that most Muslims in the west are much happier with freedom of expression than Choudary suggests. Islam is not the monolith of consistent belief and practice it is sometimes assumed to be and my hope now is that liberal minded Muslims will use this opportunity to seize their religion back from the fundamentalists and the fascism of the Islamists